By Lily Wolfson
New York City, New York
On March 22, 2020, Syria reported its first case of COVID-19. World Health Organization (WHO) representative in Syria Nima Saeed Abid said that WHO considered Syria a very-high risk country for the virus. That month, a Damascus hospital manager, Samer Khoder, said that all health and medical experts in Syria were ready to combat the spread of COVID-19.
A decade of civil war had already wreaked havoc on the country’s healthcare system. As of late 2019, less than two-thirds of Syria’s hospitals were functioning, and 70% of healthcare workers had fled the country, according to WHO.
In recent years, volunteers–widely known as the White Helmets–from the Syrian Civil Defense have been providing urgent care to victims of the war in opposition strongholds. In March 2020, though, the White Helmets pursued a new priority. They began a sterilization process of all walls, floors and other surfaces to help curb COVID-19 cases.
In Idlib Governorate, the White Helmets established checkpoints where they took the temperatures of people traveling through. Because a fever is not the only symptom of COVID-19, many believe that most cases in Syria went undetected and undocumented despite the White Helmets’ efforts.
Dana, a teenager from Suwayda, Syria, who has been outspoken about education issues in Syria, is calling on her country to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.
“We don’t have online classes. We just go to school. They stopped in-person learning for one month this time last year,” Dana said. She and her classmates quarantined for one month in 2020 before returning to school; they have been learning in-person since.
“Even if they did mention COVID-19, it would be incorrect stuff, such as: ‘There are no cases here,’” she said.
Despite the Ministry of Health’s insistence that there were no cases in Syria, Dana said, “It’s obvious that at some point we all had [COVID-19]. Suwayda is small, and everyone knows everyone. If someone got sick and died by COVID-19 or suspiciously, then everyone would know about it. Some people don’t even go to the funeral because of it.”
“The whole problem is that they don’t care. If they cared, they would care about protection like wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer. We had a one-month quarantine, and people wore masks during then and for the few months after. Now it is super rare to find someone wearing a mask,” Dana said.
At her school, the mask policy is inconsistent. Some days, she and her peers will be allowed in without masks; other days, they will be turned away if they are not wearing masks. “It depends on [administrators’] mood,” Dana said. Many of Dana’s peers are focused on finding a way out of Syria, and the virus seems trivial amid war-torn conditions.
“Some people joke about the fact that they don’t care about dying from COVID because they consider themselves dead anyway living in Syria because of the circumstances,” Dana said.
Still, Dana wants to call attention to the deadly pandemic. She hopes to start learning through online school rather than attending in-person classes to help flatten the curve.